Editor, The Times,
I read Jim Thomas’ essay about Fritz Haber in the April 20, 2022 edition of The Blackshear Times.
There are some aspects of it that I don’t understand. Mr. Thomas starts by characterizing Haber’s work with nitrogen as little-known and little-appreciated. I thought that everybody knew about it. I never studied chemistry, but I am well aware of his work with nitrogen. Maybe the difference between me and the people you hang out with is that I had the benefit of a public library as a child.
I thought that everybody knew about Haber and the Haber process because of his notoriety as the developer of poison gas, which Germany used in World War I. Is that what you mean by “patriotic German?” Maybe I’m not up to date on the latest thinking on this matter, but I thought that the question of whether a man has moral responsibility for his actions, even if he was “just following orders,” was settled at the Nuremberg trials. Am I missing something?
I first became acquainted with Fritz Haber in an essay by Isaac Asimov titled “The Sin of the Scientist”. Asimov argues that scientists do have responsibility for how their work is used. He further argues that some scientists have engaged in activities that are so terrible that they deserve to be called a sin. He then proposes Fritz Haber as the original sinner among scientists.
“The Sin of the Scientist” is worth reading. It is in one of Asimov’s essay collections. I read it about 45 years ago.
Haber is well known, and not just among chemists. When Ursula K Le Guin wrote “The Lathe of Heaven,” she chose “Dr. Haber” as the name for a character who could be described as a villain; but it was a little more subtle than that.
In The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski, he visits Auschwitz, where some of his relatives were killed by men who thought like Haber. Bronowski put effort into trying to understand what went wrong with their thinking. Bronowski did not simply call them evil. That would be simply a label, and it would not tell us anything. Bronowski identified their “terrible certainty” as the root of the problem with their thinking. They were sure that they were doing the right thing. They did not rebel, they did not question. They followed orders, like a good, patriotic German.
Is that the point of your essay about Fritz Haber? Are you holding him up as a model human being for others to emulate? If so, why? You are quite flattering to Haber in your essay. Why? Do you think that we need more Habers?
You could have picked any number of early 20th century German scientists to lionize in your essay, but you picked Fritz Haber. Why? I can think of numerous unsavory causes that someone might pursue if he idolizes Fritz Haber. Do you suffer from the same “terrible certainty” as Fritz Haber?